As a rule, the NCAA Tournament is a can’t-miss proposition. Come up with 64 (or 68) teams, fill out the brackets, and play the games. There will be drama. All tournaments are reliable that way, this tournament especially.
This year, though, has been different: a riot of a tournament from its opening tip, fêted with high drama, incredible performances, and a loss for the ages.
A 16 seed from the University of Maryland Baltimore County walloped the tournament’s number one overall seed by twenty points and, in the process, broke an 0-for-135 streak for 16 seeds against 1s that dated back to 1985.
Speaking of, 1985 was the last time that Loyola Chicago made the Sweet Sixteen – until this year, when the Ramblers got there thanks to two improbable last-second shots and the pregame prayers of a 98-year-old nun named Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt.
Sister Jean calling herself an “international” sensation, or UMBC’s 5’8, 140-pound point guard KJ Maura tearing up the Cavs’ backcourt would have been plenty for most tournaments.
For this one, it barely scratches the surface of what we saw during the tournament’s crazed opening weekend.
On Sunday, Cincinnati blew a 22-point lead and lost to a Nevada team that came back to win its first game in overtime against Texas. Wolfpack coach Eric Musselman celebrated that first win by screaming the f-word three times in TNT; he celebrated the second win by charging into the locker room shirtless.
In the tournament’s East region, the highest seed left is number five Kentucky. Should John Calipari’s team get past Kansas State, they’ll face the winner of a matchup of Musselman’s Wolfpack and Sister Jean’s Loyola Chicago for a spot in the Final Four.
That East region will be remembered as the first ever not to send any of its top four seeds to the Sweet Sixteen, but things were hardly calmer on Sunday in the West region, where North Carolina and Xavier went tumbling out in the space of three hours.
The West’s third seed is still standing only because, the night before, Michigan’s Jordan Poole hit an absurdly difficult, buzzer-beating shot to steal a 64-63 win against Kelvin Sampson’s Houston.
As we prepare to take in the tournament’s second weekend, there are as many 11 seeds left dancing (Loyola and Syracuse) as there are 1 seeds (Villanova and Kansas).
On Monday, ‘Noles coach Leonard Hamilton said that this March “almost like a revolution.”
Whether that’s true or not, this year’s Madness will stand for years as a gleaming reminder of the tournament’s unmatched ability to deliver thrills and spills and sounds and stories so fast that you barely have time to think.
Even the more routine games last weekend were compelling: Michigan State melted down against the Orange in Detroit, missing their last fourteen shots from the field as the beleaguered Tom Izzo failed to crack Jim Boeheim’s still-spitting zone.
Gonzaga took a 15-0 lead on Ohio State, watched the Buckeyes storm back to go up 62-58, and then finished the game on a 32-22 run to become Mark Few’s fourth straight Sweet Sixteen team.
We saw Marshall shoot Wichita State out of the tournament, Buffalo blitz Arizona, Trae Young come up just short against Rhode Island, and Angel Delgado put up 24 points and 23 rebounds in his last game for Seton Hall against the Jayhawks.
There hasn’t been a dull moment. There has hardly been a moment that’s made sense.
Virginia, the country’s best defense, gave up 53 second half points to a team put up 39 in an entire game against Albany earlier this year. The country’s second best defense, Cincinnati, was gashed for 32 points in the final eleven minutes in their meltdown against Nevada.
Roy Williams, meanwhile, hadn’t lost a tournament game as a six-or-more-seed favorite since George Mason took out the Tar Heels on their run to the 2006 Final Four.
The George Mason coach in that tournament was Jim Larranaga, the same man who stood with his hands clasped to his head in horror when the three-point shot of Loyola Chicago’s Donte Ingram took out his Miami team a week ago.
Where do we go from here? It’s anyone’s guess of course – though it must be said that Calipari, after his voluminous complaining, ended up with a path to San Antonio of Davidson, Buffalo, K-State, and the winner of Nevada and Loyola.
The Wildcats are favorites in that decimated East region. Logic says that Michigan and Gonzaga are likely to meet in the West, but A&M is, clearly, not to be trifled with.
The tournament stayed much more on the rails in the Midwest and South regions, where a trio of bluebloods – ‘Nova, Kansas, and Duke – are the three favorites to win it all.
Duke plays Syracuse on Friday night, buoyed by its own unexpected zone defense. If Coach K took inspiration from Boeheim, it was with plenty of merit: take away a Final Four matchup with UNC two years ago, and the Orange have given up 51, 50, 60, 62, 56 and 53 points in their last six tournament games.
Villanova has the tournament’s biggest margin of victory so far, but the West Virginia team they’ll face just isn’t far behind.
In the other game in that region, Purdue’s engineering students have been charged with creating an elbow brace that will allow the Boilermakers’ Spartan-esque center Isaac Haas to get back on the court for the team’s matchup against Texas Tech.
If these next four days are anything like the last four of the tournament, we’re in for another unforgettable ride.
If not, this March will live forever all the same.